I visited Candlestick Park a few weeks ago on the occasion of the 49ers vs. the St. Louis Rams (49ers 23 – Rams 13 final). My beloved Niners seek their 6th championship title for the last time from the ‘Stick this year, campaigning from their sparkling new stadium in Santa Clara beginning in the 2014 season. It was the first time in well over a decade, perhaps even closer to two, that I’d been inside the cavernous monolith on the former marshlands known as Candlestick Point. It was a glorious day for football, as is so often the case in San Francisco in the fall; our best weather all year as observed famously by many, none the least being the airplane-avoiding, larger-than-life curmudgeon cum coach cum announcer – boom – John Madden.
*cue emphatic telestrator circling of sea lions on rocks near Farallons.*
Forgeive me if I’m a little sentimental. Here’s the thing: I practically grew up in Candlestick Park.
My first time at the ‘Stick was probably around 1975 to watch the 49ers. We were sitting in the upper deck above the north end zone and I saw a classmate of mine, Robert Nava who was there with his family because you could do that back then — bring the whole family. I remember thinking, “Everybody in the whole city might be here in this stadium right now”. I had a cheeseburger and studied the players photos in the program. Jean Barrett I determined was the most handsome, everything else is a blur of irrelevance, including the final score, but we almost certainly lost. I believe it was a game day decision to even go; my mom drove out to the park, walked us up to the ticket window and in we went. I didn’t understand the game of football back then (eventually I’d be able to name the starting O-Line including their alma maters) but I loved the energy of the fans, who, despite how awful the team was, still heartily cheered a first-down, argued over calls and mostly got very, very drunk. And the next day at school when I saw Robert in class and we just smiled and nodded to each other, it was like a secret club with membership only for cool people. “Yea,” I’m sure I casually said to a fellow middle-schooler, “I saw him at the game.”
I forget how old I was when I realized that we were that kind of family. There’re those that go camping together and sing songs in the car (aren’t there?), and those that spend hours meticulously wrapping lavish gifts with candy canes and jingle bells and little wooden ornament tags for each other at Christmas, and those that play Monopoly without cheating, and say please and thank you at the dinner table, and knock before they walk in on you in the bathroom…d’you see where I’m going with this? On Sundays at our house you’d hear the sounds of shoulder pads and officials blowing calls and beer commercials. And you’d see my mom in her housecoat & slippers, moving from room to room, each tv tuned to a different game, holding a notepad and a fistful of cards with all the match-ups and their lines. She’d keep tabs on all the scores quarter by quarter and if she missed one she’d call out to me or my brother, “How’re the Bills doing?” meaning, are they beating the points? I won’t say we knew a bookie, but we did, and she’d howl herself Dodger blue if she knew I told you she gambled on football all though my childhood. I promise you she’s a nice lady who wore modest pantsuits and never missed a day of work except to get her gallbladder removed and packed our school lunches every day. She took notes on the games & worked out some kind of system that seemed logical to her, (and only her, I’m sure,) and usually she’d break even, pick 7 or 8 out of ten, or lose, or very, very occasionally surprise everyone in her office (all middle-aged women, also enthrall to the bookmaker) and reel in a windfall. She did things like take us to Disneyland with her winnings. She was particularly fond of college football. “Poor little Wake Forest” she’d lament. I was 20 before I knew that Wake Forest was a school in North Carolina and not some undersized kicker who missed extra points a lot.
At the park in those early years we’d always sit in the upper-deck, over the now hallowed ground of the north end-zone, peering down the perilously steep slope to watch the plays open up, just like they draw on the boards with Xs and Os and arrows criss-crossing, except with real bodies. Football, though generally regarded by the uninitiated as brutish, is actually quite beautiful from this distance as the complex choreography develops on the field. Also, apparently beer improves eyesight proportionally to volume consumed, as missed “holding” calls were emphatically pointed-out by eagle-eyed fans as the game progressed. There is no people-watching that compares to that in the nose-bleeds at a ballpark filled with the ever-increasingly drunken fans of a hopelessly crummy team. There were fistfights and cursing and more than a few spills on the steep stairs by some of the more entertainingly intoxicated. However horror-stricken my mom became at the end of some of those games, it was all just part of the show to me: the big, unruly mash-up of life. We chanted “DEEEE-FENCE!!” together and handed over, seat by seat, hot dogs and sodas and change for a $20 and we blew our plastic horns and rang our cowbell and sat protected, in the center of the circle of our red and gold clan. These were the Joe Thomas, trade for OJ Simpson, artificial turf, 2 & 14 years. The days when you loved your team because they were your TEAM and you came out to sit in hard plastic seats in a concrete and steel ballpark to be with your people, not for the poutine fries and a $9 plastic tumbler of chablis.
When I was a sophomore in high school my mom managed through her connections to get me a job as an usherette at Candlestick for the baseball Giants. The nice ladies who I guess were my bosses gave me an orange vest and sent me out to a very far away section in the upper deck on the third-base side to basically watch the game and figure out what exactly I’d be getting my tiny paycheck for. The one thing I was explicitly not to do was sit. Those first few times were freakin-hilarity-on-ice as I sat one group of intrepid Giants’ fans after another in the wrong seats or sent them slogging off into the desolate, nether-regions of the park to find a ladies’ room. I didn’t know where first-aid was or how to get to the press box, but I did know that you could unstick your long hair from your lipgloss without taking your hands out of your pockets by standing in the inner corridor of the upper deck and angling your head into the hurricane-force winds. I chased down foul balls with dozens of kids, sighed in the bottoms of ninths as victory eluded us and pulled the collar up on my big, orange wool coat as the fog fell in clumps over the lip of the stadium and the seagulls circled in on those freezing July nights. Even back then you knew the ‘Stick was a dinosaur staggering toward extinction: the restrooms were cloyingly small, you couldn’t see the game from the concession stands and the interior corridors of the upper deck were like windowless cell-blocks; cold, dark, remote…the perfect place for getting stoned…um, or so I heard.
*Whistles. Looks around.*
Anyway, I one-time rode in the elevator with Tamara Clark, wife of right-fielder Jack. She was wearing a white mink coat and a diamond encrusted #22 pendant on a gold chain that I’m betting you could see from space.
Wore all this…to the BALL park.
The Giants never did bring a trophy home to the ‘Stick and these were particularly lean years for them, but I got to watch Willie MacCovey, John Montefusco, The Clarks22 (they really should retire the number for The Thrill, one of my all time faves), Frank Robinson, Joe Morgan, Jeffrey Leonard and others. Ironically, one of my favorite games to play was one devised by a friend’s brother to measure the true depths of a fan’s loyalty: in a beer-fueled yelling match, who can name the most OBSCURE Giant to ever take the field (during our particular era — late 70s early 80s)? The argument still rages today, as it’s obviously pretty subjective, but my feeling is if you know who the fuck John Tamargo was, you deserve a gold-plated Croix de Candlestick!! The friendships I made out there were epic. Between the usherettes, security guards, cops, vendors, ticket-sellers, maintenance guys, concession workers, and the occasional player there was enough cross-pollination to keep the gene pool interesting. After-game tailgating was a regular occurrence, as crews would get off work and converge at C lot amidst open trunks-ful of cold beers. Folks would wander off into the dark of the parking lot to make-out or throw-up (or both if the night wore on long enough) and then stagger back to pass out in a back seat or crack open another cold one. Sometimes the back gate would be open, especially if it was late in the season when the park was also used for football. Always we’d make a dash for daylight, those of us who could still walk right. We’d run around in the outfield and if the guards were “busy” we’d make it to the dugouts and sometimes run around the dirt infield where the bases would have been. Mary and Andy may or may not have shagged in centerfield. The number and variety of trysts, betrayals and heresies, both real and imagined, spawned the nickname SCANDALSTICK and my own amusing, treacherous, baffling foray into the world of grown-ups, or at least their proxies, began with a can of coors in one hand, a Marlboro Light in the other and Joan and I with our arms around each other, singing Eddie Money’s “I Think I’m in Love”. It all seemed so damn important back then, the loyalties and drunken pinkie-promises, and of course they were. It was all my American Graffiti, except with Days-on-the-Green, bad perms and flashdance tops.
All of this and then came the 80s. in San Francisco. Football fans we were, did I mention?
This photo still gives me chills, probably always will. And perfect that the angle includes some of the stadium so that Candlestick Park will always hold its place in history. Dwight Clark may never make the Hall of Fame and Candlestick will be leveled eventually to make way for who knows what, but this photo is an historical touchstone, like photos of Lou Gehrig or Ray Charles — national treasures that remind us of how sometimes unexpected it is to be awesome. My older brother Bob was sitting in our season ticket spots on the east side of where Clark cemented his legend. He told me people were crying…CRYING! I get it. The shock of the improbable is overwhelming. I was in the Daly City BART station coming home from work and a stranger and I embraced when the station agent announced this miraculous touchdown. People streamed out of their houses all along the BART route, I could see them from the train as we sped past, neighbors hugging and waving. It was totally beautiful. Later that year during baseball season Bill Walsh walked through the section I was working in. I only saw his hand waving and the top of his pure white hair, like a sighting of the Pope or something, and though it was very early in his legendary career people pressed against him like he was royalty, to touch greatness and say thank you. It makes my heart thump still, all these years later. Candlestick was never much to look at, but some totally amazing stuff happened in there.
It may seem a trivial thing, sports, and of course it is. The big picture is important, but people don’t really live in the big picture. Day in and day out they live in the small picture where they sit in traffic and buy groceries and go to the dentist. We group ourselves into tribes in the small picture because it help us know who we are on this great, spinning rock, even if it’s just a fleeting sense. And don’t give me that shit about “I HATE sports! FUCK those overpaid jocks!” like you can take the moral high-ground because American culture is totally screwed up and you got your skinny, emo-ass kicked by a Neanderthal in a letter-jacket in high school. You don’t have to get sports. Everybody has their tribe: celebrity hounds, music freaks, tall people…everybody nods to their tribesmen out on the savannah (or on the N Judah) because it makes us feel like we’re not alone and we can all access the mystery somehow, through greatness or poetry or beauty, where ever it is we choose to look for it. If you don’t see how sports has anything to do with all that high-minded, family-of-man stuff I would say trust me, it does and that this is just probably not your tribe.
I hope the new park is a glittering, crown jewel for the NFL. I hope the local economy of Santa Clara bursts at the seams with new revenue and that the citizens take deep pride in being the home of the San Francisco 49ers. I hope the team makes new, ever more awesome legends down the peninsula and that they grace their new home with 5 more Lombardi Trophies. Prior to all that though, sometime after Kap & Harbaugh and all the rest of the guys jog off the field after Monday Night Football, I’ll stand with some of my tribe and watch the big, concrete shell cave in on itself, but it’ll be a celebration, not a funeral. We’ll high-five and chant for the defense and put our arms around each other and bellow “We are the champions, my friends…” because some of us will be drunk and some of us will be crying, but mostly because in that brooding block of concrete, we were champions…all of us. Corny? Maybe, but that’s how my tribe rolls and I totally dig it.